“Merit” gets a lot of use in current cultural memes. It is equivalent to what moral or great good used to be. Something that everyone should appreciate, strive for, and reward or applaud.

The problem is that merit _ like all those other values_ is really relative. Is there merit, for example, in not stealing a loaf of bread? Does it make a difference if you or your family is starving? We’ve changed the word implications, but the core issues still remain. 

“Ah,” apologists chime in, “but merit is a positive thing _ it simply means someone does something better than others. Not that someone tries but that they succeed. And that success is an objective fact we can all see, not some namby pamby feeling.”

I understand the argument. I find it lacking. Merit, like good, has too many preconditions, most of which we can never know. Merit, like any other value, should be judged partially by its difficulty.

“No! No!” cry the apologists. “Success is an objective thing!” Yet none of the billionaires claim to want a complete “competentocracy.” There is no glamor in being competent.  Deep in their hearts, most highly successful people are well aware that just as in ancient days much of our lives are determined not by our actions, but by circumstance and fate.

Scrooge Mob

Many online readers of the Wall Street Journal, spurred by the editorial page, have lately become Scrooge incarnate. Or maybe a combination of Marie Antoinette and that famous miser. Their comments are usually a combination of “are there no poor houses?” with “let them eat cake!”

I’m old and have forgotten a lot, but I do not remember the old USA, with all its faults, ever being so mean and plain maliciously, ignorantly selfish. A patina of Western civilized values was reflected even in our corporations and their minions. Now, even with untold comfort and wealth, the comments rain down from what seem a coven of cackling old witches casting curses, although I sometimes think they are actually from peevish, isolated adult children in their mom’s basement.

It is fascinating to observe how sinners accuse the innocent of their own sins. Those who do nothing for a living accuse others of being lazy. Those who steal from society and the government scream about everyone else cheating. Those who rely on the gifts of their ancestors claim everyone should be rewarded for their own meritocratic worth.

It’s sickening and silly.

My hope is that all this is probably shallow. In person, most folks are still reasonable. They shout in the confines of their sacred media, but outside its shell they are normal. Or maybe I’m just an

Braided Stream

Nobody knows, and I suspect nobody can know, the “true structure of reality.” But there is a current meme that claims there is a “multiverse” containing all possibilities coexistent with mine.

I have as much right as anyone to disagree.

My view of such a universe is less that of all possibilities in an infinitely dimensional block then a braided stream. Such waterways constantly diverge slightly and then not much later reform in generally the same direction. With proper perspective, they form a single current even though any given water molecule may go anywhere at any time.

And really, beyond flights of fancy, the imponderable question is time itself. We are unable to get a clue to its real nature. Unless we could somehow do so _ which I doubt _ we can never find “true reality”.

But all these exercises are really more about fable and the myths of meaning. It may be comforting to think that somewhere else things might have turned out differently or better. Mostly that gives us a better acceptance of our own path, or at least a comfort that it has not been worse.

Pursuit of the multiverse is, as most such quests,  a modern equivalent of tilting at windmills, or daydreaming in sunny meadows.

Saint Entrepreneur

The elite wealthy rulers of any culture tend to define its heroes. These legends may contain a germ of truth, but they are mostly bins of sawdust. Their purpose is usually justification of the way things are, presented as the way things are meant to be.

The Greeks and Romans had a male oriented warrior ideology, which justified their entire power structure. European aristocracy similarly claimed to defend its people from barbarians. Chinese Emperors relied on simple “mandate of heaven” _ possibly the most honest of all _ as was similarly espoused by later day French kings.

Today is no different. Those in power have preached the glory of entrepreneurship, of those who _ like knights of old _ take on risk and endure harsh trials for a noble cause.

It is less important whether this is true or not than that lots of people who are not entrepreneurs believe it. Just as an ancient peasant knew he could never be Sir Lancelot, modern simple wage earners and artisans blame their own deficiencies for their own failures in this system.

It’s a clever way to promote the stability of society. I’d be the first to admit it has certain advantages over the mandate of heaven. But there is always the danger that the masses take it too seriously. Not to mention the rulers.


Like many who spent time in the Bay Area in the ’70s, I was made aware of a nicely Illustrated paperback translation of the Tao Te Ching. Seemed profound to a 20-year-old. But a lot of its charm lay in the obscurity of what it pronounced.

Looking back and rereading as an old guy, I am less excited about any holy writings. It’s not so much that often the literal scenes are a lot like superhero comic books, but rather that even the deeper metaphors are not all that deep or relevant.

To be fair to the Tao, it claims at the beginning that it cannot be put into words. Then somebody tries to put it into words. Huh?

The main use of alternate learning, when one is young, is to gain perspective. Our species tends to be very certain of its knowledge when a teenager. Breaking into those self-constructed shells is important in living a balanced life, although possibly blunting the edge of ambition.

Now I seek not to fall into the same trap. Out of declining memory and aging tiredness, I tend to slip into the same easy certainties, even if simply to claim that things like the Tao are silly. But I need to be generous and admit that there is really a time for every purpose under heaven.

Lacking Struggle

The most interesting and horrifying stories are always about “my struggle.” Sometimes the problems are external, sometimes self-inflicted, but overcoming adversity is seen as extremely admirable.

But what of those of us who for one reason or another have never descended to the pits of Hell? Nobody wants to hear about “my lack of struggle” or “an easy life.” That’s viewed as pretty useless, in the grand scheme of things.

This culture has been steeped in social darwinism and entrepreneurial meritocracy. We take our “survival of the fittest” seriously. It is a moral fundamental. 

I look around and I see the environment differently. A mighty oak just happened to grow where the acorn fell, not struggling every minute nor killing all around. Just getting through a few storms, droughts, and other crises. And I see myself and a lot of other people the same way.

There is no reason to ignore the oak tree as boring. No reason to disrespect those who quietly fit into society and lived their lives. I wonder these days if those who attempt mighty deeds are not responsible for most of our troubles.

But I cannot struggle against the powers that be, except by quietly going about my business. That is not what anybody wants to hear in these troubled times.


I have been fortunate to have paired with Joan over the last fifty-odd years in a traditional marital and family partnership. I’ve read a lot of history and anthropology and I’m not sure how truly “traditionally monogamous sexual mating” is for our species, but it has worked for us.

On observation, partnership of one kind or another does work for most people. It seems to often be two, but usually under five. It is formed by common vision _ children, a business, whatever _ and kept intact by outside pressures which are greater than internal tensions.

A true partnership is forged in honesty, loyalty, equality and mutual dependence, although the details may be invisible to an outside observer. Lots of novels have been devoted to the permutations of this theme.

In my case, I find our codependencies have aged well. We were lucky to have bonded when we were both fully mature independent people. That has kept us both relatively able to ride out problems without additional severe friction.

Anyway, I note this mostly to celebrate my good fortune. And just a cautionary note of why I distrust any demagogue with a strange singular vision of how humans should or must live.


We would seem to be well prepared for mortality by the simple need to sleep each night. And it is certain that death affects those who remain far more than it does the actual individual who exists no longer. Yet I admit that as an elder who sees the end nearer and more clearly day by day, there is in fact something strange and dreadful about “passing away.”

Life must fight to continue each moment, and the complex beings which we are have evolved to require ourselves to project into the future. That is why the ultimate emptiness of not being affects us most. How can we contemplate a future in which we have no place?

The task is much harder for those with plans and responsibilities. So a classic solution has been to detach from all caring or ambition. All that seems to do, unfortunately, is eliminate the wonder of being fully alive.

Most of us reach a more or less happy inbetween state, very committed to continuing and striving, but also aware of all that is beyond our control. Facing mortality in such a manner is not all that different from dealing with the infinite problems of conscious life itself.

Easy to say …

Zeno Quantumized

That swift Achilles can never overtake a tortoise in a race was proved by Zeno with impeccable logic. That the logic was wrong _ or rather that its fundamental assumptions were _ could be seen by any spectator. And so, I wonder about the currently accepted and clearly logical multiverse.

There are many things in the world that prove to be impossibly complex. Myself surely does not feel like 35 trillion cells, each one a busy little molecular factory. Yet I accept it is so. There is a validity and provable use to the concept that goes far beyond math and logic.

At a commonsense level, the multiverse is silly, as is the idea that I am not one entity. But in the quantum reality of math, my hunch is that common sense is more like the spectator of Zeno’s race. Just because math can be made to fit observations does not mean that math proves anything else.

Speculating about alternate reality is, in fact, like speculating about angels dancing on a pinhead. “Oh no!” shout the physicists, “we have provable predictions!”

But I suspect their own complex irrefutable logic bears, in the end, a striking resemblance to that of a certain ancient Greek.

Seeking Truth

“Seek and ye shall find” is obviously silly. Even our popular fables of searching for such things as the philosopher’s stone, the holy grail, el dorado, or the fountain of youth tell us so. Seeking, we realize, is best reserved for what can actually be found. Defining the quest is certainly more important than rushing into it. 

Those who seek truth have a more difficult task. Some truth is easy along the lines of “will I fall if I jump off this cliff?” Some truth is forever obscure, mostly anything having to do with the future. 

And, more to the point, anything relating to our internal states or social evaluations. I would contend that there is very little absolute truth concerning, for example, happiness or morality. And, for most of us, “relative truth” sounds suspiciously like an oxymoron.

The problem is that we have equated truth with fact. A fact is easily provable or disprovable. We can seek it and get a decent answer. We may need to be careful about definitions, but in general we can tell one way or the other.

Truth has taken on a wider connotation and, while that is useful in itself, it is also dangerous to equate it with fact. There is no simple truth to trying to determine something like “fire is good” or even “you are my friend.”

Seek truth and ye will find confusion.